Driving down US 395 on the east side of California, one cannot help but be impressed by the shear magnitude of the Sierra Nevada where dozens of peaks rise 10,000 ft from the valley floor in less than 5 miles. Perhaps the most dramatic of these is Mt Tom, a 13,658 ft peak just outside of Bishop which is separated from the Sierra Crest by over 3 miles and therefore dominates the view for much of the north end of Owens Valley
After hearing several years ago that Elderberry Canyon (its northern canyon) was regularly skied, a ski descent of Mt Tom has captured my imagination and inspired my love for ski touring. Although coincidental, it seems fitting that this would be my first big east side tour! Several weeks ago Jason and I got to talking about doing a large tour near home when I pitched the more lofty goal of heading to the east side for a big day. I suggested “Mt Tom,” and almost before the words were out of my mouth, Jason was down.
We carpooled from South Lake down to Bishop where we stayed with some friends who had gotten a campground at the Pleasant Valley Pit. Although our plan was to start hiking at 6 am, we didn’t end up leaving The Pit until 6 with our goal visible high above us in the twilight.
We made the short drive across US 395 to Rovana and turned onto Vanadium Ranch Drive, a dirt road that eventually leads to the mouth of Elderberry Canyon. Unfortunately my car, despite having good four wheel drive, does not afford much ground clearance and after a few close calls with large rocks in the roadway we found a pullout in which to park and start hiking.
As we assembled our gear for the day, the sun approached the crest of the White Mountains across the valley and we watched as Mt Tom became illuminated from the top down. Looking up the road, it was obvious that we wouldn’t be skiing for a while, so we donned our trail runners and strapped our skis to our packs, taking a “before” shot for what was sure to be a long day.
We started the hike up the road just before 7 am and I was a bit dismayed by how decent condition it was in — if I had a slightly higher clearance vehicle, we could have easily cut 2 miles off of the round trip distance! After a mile, the road began to switchback, but Jason and I had no patience for the gentle slope and found a use trail which afforded a more direct route.
After another half mile, the road abruptly forked: the road left heading toward a series of steep switchbacks left of the canyon, and the road right heading up the canyon and quickly dissolving into the sagebrush. We split the difference and headed straight toward the canyon, working our way through annoying brush and across the rough talus. Near the mouth of the canyon, a couloir ran 500 ft before melting out. Jason suggested that maybe we could ski this after our summit. I was skeptical that we’d have either the time or energy but agreed that it was a cool line.
We climbed another hundred feet or so before deciding that it was time to cross to the south side of the canyon and climb the snow. In an hour and a half we’d climbed nearly 2,000 ft over 2.5 miles and were antsy to get on the snow. I crossed the creek and poked the snow, deciding that it was worth putting on our crampons. We ditched our trail runners and put on our ski boots and crampons.
The snow was very firm and unyielding and the hill was steep. We had to front point this entire stretch of hill. Despite being in decent hiking shape, I try to hike with my heels down at all times to take advantage of my glutes and hamstrings. Tip toeing up this hillside meant using my calves quite a bit and they were not used to it. I was concerned that booting up the headwall might be too much for my legs to handle, and deciding to bail halfway up a steep bootpack would not be good. Hopefully the snow would be softer on the headwall.
The slope eased up after a few hundred feet and we stopped to trade our crampons for skis and ski crampons. Now that we no longer had the weight of skis on our back we finally got the feeling that we were making significant progress. In reality we were making better progress than either of us had expected — we had estimated an average of 1,000 ft of elevation gain per hour, but we were beating that estimate by about half an hour (and we held that advantage for most of the day).
Around 10 am at about 8,500 ft the snow started to soften and we realized that a pair of tracks ahead of us were very fresh — possibly even from that morning! I guessed by the width of the tracks that at least one of the group was a splitboarder. After another hour, we found ourselves near the base of the headwall and started scoping out our route to the summit. Jason was concerned about getting into terrain that was above his skiing ability and I was still concerned about my calves being able to make the boot to the ridgeline so we both agreed that taking one of the gentler slopes to the north of the headwall might be prudent. As the northern slopes came into view, we finally spied the hikers ahead of us. One had just gained the ridgeline and the other, seemingly exhausted, was working his way slowly up a set of switchbacks his partner must have set. I whooped out to say hello and although they seemed to see us, neither responded. Jason and I decided that their route looked appealing so we followed their track towards the ridge.
As the route began to steepen and switch back, Jason decided that he wanted to bootpack rather than skin. I thought skinning would be easier, but he seemed more confident on his feet, so I decided to let him choose his own poison rather than try to convince him my way was better. I plopped down on the soft snow to wait for him to transition when he shouted for me to look and I turned to see the first splitboarder descend the gully next to us. The snow looked delightful and I was envious of him! A minute later his friend (who was also a splitboarder) followed behind.
We started up the slope now fairly certain we had the mountain to ourselves, Jason bootpacking and myself traversing the switchbacks on skis. We gained the ridge around 1:15 pm, reaching 11,800 ft and gaining 6,700 ft in about six and a half hours. We stopped for lunch and discussed our plan.
Although the snow below us looked incredible, we were both keen on summiting Mt Tom. It was less than 2,000 ft to the summit, but along a ridgeline with mixed snow conditions and at fairly high elevation. Looking ahead, I saw that a thin strip of snow lay along most of the ridge and I suggested that we should bring our skis so that we could drop into one of the steeper routes on the headwall on the way down, saving some extra hiking. Directly ahead of us on the ridge were two rocky gendarmes, though, so we decided to first boot across these before committing to hauling our skis any further.
Jason seemed in his element here, happily stomping into the snow along the ridge. I was frustrated by a few surprisingly deep steps but eventually gained footing and felt more comfortable. We traded leads a few times, sharing the load of setting the bootpack.
After climbing the second gendarme, we could see that the next half mile of ridge was devoid of snow and realized that our skis would not help us on the rest of the climb. Furthermore, the strip of snow I’d seen was thinner than I realized and skiing along it back toward a shallower route would be a bit sketchy being so close to the steep headwall. We agree to ditch our skis and hike the rest of the way to the summit, realizing that this committed us to returning to this part of the ridge before we could descend.
The ridge traverse went slowly, sometimes climbing along the loose shale on the western slope and sometimes opting to bootpack through the snow atop the ridge. The snow was unpredictable and frustrating, but the rock was predictably frustrating. Hiking in ski boots was difficult because we had no ankle control, though at the same time we didn’t have to worry about rolling an ankle. We were both a bit horrified by the atrocities we perpetrated on our boots by hiking through this rock; loose shale is often the death of trailrunners. How would our boots hold up?
After an hour of hiking it was already 2:30 pm and we’d only travelled half a mile (about a third of the total distance) to the summit. We weren’t even at the top of the headwall yet! I could tell Jason was exhausted because he kept discussing turnaround times. We had guessed we might summit by 3 pm earliest and now we were saying that 4 pm would be a reasonable turnaround time to make sure the snow was not a sheet of ice on the descent. I could also tell Jason was determined to summit, because it didn’t take much effort to convince him that we had ample time and that as long as we made it back to our skis by sunset, I was sure we’d be able to safely get down the mountain.
The ridge turned southeast and we had a stunning view to Pine Creek Canyon below. Long couloirs ran down the opposite side, separating the many steeples of the Wheeler crest.
After another hour of hiking we finally arrived at the very top of the Elderberry Canyon headwall. We stepped toward the ridge and admired the full view of the canyon below. I badly wished we had our skis so that we could be skiing one of these beautiful lines, but this would not be the day. Looking south, the summit still seemed impossibly far, but we continued onward.
After a bit more hiking, I had the unsettling feeling that what we assumed was the summit might actually be a false summit. We climbed ever closer, mostly on rocks, though booting through the snow where the rocks were too steep or too loose.
I had been leading the hike for the last two hours and when I crested this rise I jokingly shouted “oh no!” However, as I looked, I instantly regretted the joke. This was indeed a false summit, but the true summit was even further than I possibly could have guessed. My heart fell, but now we had come so far that Jason declared that this was the “magical” point where we were going to summit, turnaround times be damned. We crested the true summit and for some reason I decided to make the same joke, certain that it would really be laughable this time. It wasn’t. There was still another 100 feet, including about 20 feet of climbing to get to the summit. When I expressed my disappointment, Jason followed close behind and said “ah, that’s nothing!”
We reached the summit shortly after 4:30 pm. The mile and half traverse had taken us three hours! Jason signed the register and took a long lunch while I snapped photos of the nearby peaks.
After a short rest, we started the long traverse back to our skis. Refreshed by the summit, the downhill trend, and being in his element (bootpacking through the snow) Jason suddenly was a new man. I had led most of the hike to the summit, but now I had to chase Jason back down the ridge! Where I had been making conversation to pass the time and keep the mood light on the uphill, Jason was now the chatterbox!
The sun had set on the canyon, but we still had more than two hours before the sun would set on the valley below. As expected the return trip went quicker than the climb, but it still took an hour and a half before we returned to our skis. After another quick snack brake, we put on our skis and Jason started the descent.
Unlike the beautiful soft corn we’d seen the splitboarders ride that afternoon, the snow was set up hard. The skiing wasn’t exactly fun, but it sure beat hiking out! We were able to find some softer, chalky snow along the way, but most of it was icy and noisy. Around 9,000 ft, the snow finally transitioned to corn and we had 2,000 beautiful feet of corn skiing! At least we had some good skiing as reward for our effort!
We approached the slope we’d booted up 12 hours earlier and I found a way through (and sometimes across) the rocks back to the creek. Jason took the more conservative approach of removing his skis and hiking down. We switched out of our skis and into our trailrunners once again, I being very jealous of Jason’s extra pair of socks.
As I skied down toward our shoes I’d noticed what looked like a trail about 30 ft above where we’d crossed the creek. I suggested we check it out, and it was indeed a trail. We followed it for a while but soon decided it switched back far too often. Being in such disrepair as it was, neither of us had too much guilt over cutting its switchbacks, though we were careful not to overly trample the brush.
Soon we were back on the road and hiking toward the car in the twilight. About a mile from the car, the sun had properly set, but the waxing half moon was so bright, neither of us bothered donning our headlamps. We returned to the car at 8:30 pm, nearly 14 hours after we set out. We quickly stashed our gear in the car and headed to Bishop for a well earned dinner.
- Snow line at 6,750 ft
- Normal spring conditions:
- No new snow
- Well consolidated snowpack
- Firm in morning
- Softening with solar exposure and rising temps
- Firm after sunset
- Evidence of recent loose wet avalanches
- No new avalanches observed
- Winds calm, no active loading observed
Elevation Gain: 8,500 ft